Saturday, August 11, 2018

A gayal is like a cow

One of the pramāṇas which has received relatively less attention than perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna) is known as "analogy" (upamāna). Actually, whether we should translate it as "analogy" is a good question, since, as we might expect, although it shares some commonalities with analogical reasoning as understood by European and related traditions, it is not exactly the same. And there is significant dispute between Naiyāyikas and Mīmāṃsakas over its nature, even though they both accept that it is a pramāṇa, not reducible to inference or perception. Perhaps simply "comparison" is better?

A stock Mīmāṃsā example of upamāna is when one sees a gayal (below, left, Sanskrit gavaya) and comes to know through upamāna that there is similarity between it and a cow, which one remembers, having seen it in the city (below, right, Sanskrit go). As Naiyāyikas put things, however, first one asks a forest-dweller, "What is a gayal?" and they answer "A gayal is like a cow." Aftewards, when one sees the gayal in the forest, then one comes to know what the word "gayal" refers to, in a way previously unavailable.

A gayal relaxing in a field.
A cow relaxing in a field.

Or at least, this is the very broad difference between the two camps. As usual, we need to look at particular thinkers to see how they discuss the question.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Squeaky birds and secondary meaning

[Image: The Indian ducks and their allies, Published by the Bombay Natural History Society, 1908]

There is much interconnection between Indian philosophical texts and poetry, although it's not necessarily obvious without reading in both genres. For instance, in his discussion of kinds of secondary meaning, which is often cited by later Ālaṅkārikas, Kumārila says that there are three kinds of indication: those that are well-established and so seem like the primary meaning, those that are novel, and those which don't have any capacity at all.

His discussion of these three categories (which occurs at MS 3.1.12) is interesting in itself, but I just want to note the example he uses for the second category, novel, or newly created (kriyante sāṃpratam). He says this is like the word rathâṅganāman, a compound made of three terms, ratha, aṅga, nāman. It means "that which is named for the chariot's wheel'" (aṅga = part, metonymically, the wheel; ratha = chariot; nāman = name) and refers to the cakravāka bird. The compound cakra-vāka is itself indicative of a simile: the bird's call is taken to sound (vāka) like the noise of a wheel (cakra).[1]

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Lotus-eyes and similarity


Below are two images. At right, is a painting, from around 1750, of Radha, Krishna's beloved. At left, is a photograph I took in 2017, of a lotus flower floating in a pond (in Nara, Japan). What similarities are there between them?

pink lotus floating among circular green leaves in pondRadha painting with lotus-eyes in profile
If you are familiar with Sanskrit poetry, you might immediately say that Radha has eyes shaped like a lotus. This is a common trope, a description not only famously of her, but also of Krishna, the Buddha, and other beautiful or auspicious people. And if you are philosophically inclined, you might wonder what makes it the case that Radha's eyes are similar to the shape of a lotus petal. Just what kind of thing is similarity, anyway?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Kumārila on ethical role models and Buddhist philosophy


In commenting on Śabara's commentary on the Mīmāṃsāsūtra, Kumārila has to explain the relationship between the eternal Vedic texts which have no origin, and those texts known as smṛti (literally "remembered" texts, in contrast to śruti, those which are "heard") which are authored by human beings such as Manu but contain moral insight. This discussion starts at MS 1.3.1, where the first (incorrect) position is presented that people should ignore anything which isn't Vedic. This would mean rejecting the smṛtis. This position is untenable for a number of reasons, and Kumārila discusses why it is we should think that smṛtis are in fact based on lost Vedic texts.

This discussion is quite interesting, epistemologically, since it involves the epistemic instrument of postulation (arthāpatti). Kei Kataoka has discussed it in "Manu and the Buddha for Kumārila and Dharmakīrti." Kumārila argues that of the five possible explanations for Manu's writing his smṛti, the best one, for reasons of such principles as theoretical simplicity, is that he is working from a lost Vedic text. On the other hand, we can explain the Buddha's texts in other ways, such as being motivated by greed, or being himself deluded.
Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Jesus.

Why bring in Buddhist doctrine here? Well, if there is going to be room for non-Vedic moral authority, this might mean that even the Buddhist texts could have some moral authority. Perhaps there is a common Vedic ground even for the Buddha's teachings, where he happens on truth? For somewhat analogous reasoning in a more recent context, we might look to Vatican II, which set out a declaration that says
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men
Of course, for the Catholic Church, divine revelation is limited to the written scriptures (for them, authored by God). But we can see some broadly similar motivation in Vatican II and the discussion in the MS. It seems like there are other texts and teachings which manage to get things "right," morally speaking. Thus we need some explanation for them. So rather than taking the extreme first position that we should reject anything non-Vedic, we might take up the view that we should accept anything which does not contradict the Vedas. (This is one interpretation of MS 1.3.5.)

But this option is too liberal for Kumārila. After all, even in the case of Vedic texts, which are accepted as teaching dharma, merely understanding the Veda is insufficient for them to be morally fruitful. They must be learned with a teacher, they must be learned by the right group of people (e.g., not  a śūdra), and so on. Further, there is an additional problem for human authored texts which is not found for the Vedas: we have to evaluate the moral conduct of the author of these non-Vedic texts. For instance, the Buddha goes beyond his caste boundaries as a kśatriya in teaching. So, Kumārila argues, we should look to the writings of genuinely good people.

It is at this point that a counterexample is raised by the pūrvapakṣin. Wait a second, they say--even if we look at supposedly "good" people, they do bad things. There's a long list of examples here, including Prajāpati, Indra, Dhṛtarāśtra, and Arjuna. On top of that, there is the problem that people in different parts of the world have different practices. In some places, Brahmin women drink alcoholic drinks, and others they do not. And, further, it seems there's a vicious circle if we are trying to identify moral teaching based on the character of the author, since we also need to have moral teaching in order to evaluate the author's character! Jonardon Ganeri (2004) has pointed out that this seems analogous to the dilemma in Euthyphro (222).

This is just a very brief summary of some of the arguments raised by the pūrvapakṣin in this section, doubting the role of moral role models in knowing dharma. In his reply, Kumārila distinguishes between the authority of the Vedas and the authority of good people. He argues that we call good people "good" because they act in ways that align with the express commands of the Vedas. The explicit injunctions of the Vedas are always the strongest guide to dharma. There is no vicious circle because one always start with these explicit statements. If someone who routinely follows the Vedas does some action which is not in direct contradiction to the Vedas, then we can consider that action good. Kumārila compares the relationship between knowers of the Vedas and the Vedas themselves to the relationship between things which emerge from salt mines and the salt mine. The salt mine makes things salty, and the Vedas analogously make things (=people who know it correctly) Vedic.

Kumārila deals with the problem of local customs by emphasizing the universal nature of Vedic injunctions, and arguing that the particular restrictions about alcohol in the Vedas are in fact consistent with the regional variations. Since Brahmin women are not actually commanded not to drink alcohol (of a particular kind), the ones who refrain are not doing anything wrong, and the ones who engage aren't either. And as for the textual examples of good people doing bad things, there is a range of possible strategies (some of which might also be interestingly compared to hermeneutic strategies for apparently bad actions in the Hebrew Bible). We can say that the text itself sometimes condemns actions, which means it wouldn't be a problem as a moral guide. Or, perhaps the text admits of a figurative meaning or otherwise different meaning which makes the apparent badness of the action dissolve.

But back to the Buddhists. Kumārila argues that since the few Vedic truths in Buddhist teachings are so mixed up in bad reasoning (he gives examples of some of these), these truths are "like milk put in the skin of a dog" (śvaṭṭi nikṣiptakṣīravad). That is, they are polluted and not to be drunk. Of course, Dharmakīrti will argue otherwise, using the structure of arthāpatti against Kumārila (see Kataoka 2011 on this). He thinks that the Buddha's teachings can't be explained unless we accept that the Buddha had some direct perception of dharma. In contrast, we can explain the Vedas otherwise.

While much of my personal interest in Mīmāṃsā is in his linguistic philosophy, it's important to remember that for Kumārila (and indeed, Mīmāṃsakas in general), philosophy of language is never an abstract concern divorced from dharma. And while I would be hesitant to assign large sections of the Tantravārttika in an introductory philosophy class, I do think that this portion of the TV is a nice rejoinder to the oft-repeated worry that Indian philosophy lacks anything like "ethics." Of course, the concerns are deeply Vedic and we cannot entirely abstract from the ritual context, as ritual is a moral instrument. But Kumārila is grappling with problems that any philosopher of religion today would recognize.

Works Cited
Ganeri, Jonardon. "The Ritual Roots of Moral Reason" Kevin Schilbrack (ed),  Thinking Through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 213-230.

Kataoka, Kei  "Manu and the Buddha for Kumārila and Dharmakīrti," Helmut Krasser, Horst Lasic, Eli Franco, Birgit Kellner (eds), Religion and Logic in Buddhist Philosophical Analysis. Proceedings of the Fourth International Dharmakīrti Conference. Vienna, August 23–27, 2005. Wien 2011, pp. 255–269

Monday, May 7, 2018

A laukika analogy for ūha?

In teaching Mīmāṃsā philosophy of language, I try to find ordinary (laukika) analogies to Vedic examples. Today, I wonder if the new slogan put out by the First Lady of the United States could work as a sort of example of how ūha or Vedic modification works (or, here, fails to work).

Here's the case in the news today: Melania Trump has kicked off a new program with a slogan, shown in the image below.

To a native English speaker, the phrase in isolation, used as an imperative, seems odd. Typically, we say things like "Be your best" or "Be the best" or something like it. I googled "be the best" on an image search and came up with the slogans below.